Wrangle up the right studies and you can make anything look deadly. Breakfast cereal—at least, the kind without cartoon mascots—might seem innocuous, and might be marketed as healthy, but that’s no reason to think that every naturally-flavored bite isn’t speeding you towards the grave. Nothing, in this world, is above suspicion—not even tasteless health-store bran flakes.
Which brings us to this week’s Giz Asks: an investigation into whether breakfast cereal is good for you, conducted with the help of number of nutritionists and health experts. We already pretty much assumed that Frosted Flakes and its ilk are poison, and were heartily confirmed in this assumption by our experts, but we had no idea how great the grain stuff can really be for you; if your usual breakfast consists of a couple of eggs, or burnt Keurig coffee and despair, you really might want to consider giving (non-poisonous) cereal a shot.
Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health and the author of Food Politics, among many other books
Like all such questions about nutrition, this one demands a Talmudic answer: it depends.
Evaluation of any one food in a diet depends on what the food is, its nutrient composition, and how it fits with everything else a person eats. For people who eat generally healthful diets, breakfast cereal—no matter what kind—is just another food. For people concerned about eating healthfully, the level of processing matters. Cereals are grains and these have to be processed to be digestible, but the processing can range from just cooking, to removing the nutrient-rich germ and bran, extruding to create form and texture, and adding vitamins, minerals, fiber, colors, flavors, salt, sugars, chocolate, and marshmallows. Steel-cut oatmeal is relatively unprocessed. So is the cereal I prefer, mini-wheats with no added sugar or salt. Kids cereals tend to be so heavily processed, with 40% or more of their calories from added sugars, that you need to think of them as vitamin-enriched candy or cookies.
The nutritional point of cereal is calories and fiber. Relatively unprocessed cereals have five or so grams of fiber per serving. If you are lucky, kids’ cereals will have 1 or 2; it’s hard to recommend them for any nutritional purpose. I like cereals for breakfast, particularly with milk and fruit. If I want them sweeter, I’ll add a teaspoon (4 grams) of sugar.
Clinical Associate Professor, Health Sciences, Boston University
Eating cereal can be a great way to start your day, for a couple of reasons. Americans are falling short in the amount of fiber they’re getting in their diets. They should be getting somewhere between 25 and 30 grams of fiber a day, but they’re coming in at less than 15 grams. So whole grain cereal—especially when rich in fiber—is a great way to get that needed fiber boost. We often talk about wanting to make sure that your GI is cleansed. Well, one of the best ways to do that is with fiber in your diet. Sugary cereals aren’t usually high in fiber—they may have refined carbohydrates—so you’re not going get that fiber boost.
Your brain loves glucose, and glucose comes from carbohydrates, so having a breakfast in the morning that is whole-grain and has some dairy is going to give you a carbohydrate-rich fuel help your brain and body function throughout the day.
Also, many of these cereals are fortified with other nutrients like folic acid. which a lot of people aren’t getting enough of. And from a convenience standpoint, you can’t find a breakfast that’s faster to put together than cereal and milk.
What you want to do is couple it with other food groups that Americans fall short on—that would be dairy and fruit. I use a reduced-fat or low-fat milk or skim milk, because I need all the calcium and the vitamin D and I don’t need a lot of calories coming from the milk.
Assistant Professor, Nutrition Sciences, University of Alabama at Birmingham, whose research is focused obesity and energy metabolism
The majority of cereals on grocery store shelves have a ton of refined grain and added sugar—they’re fortified with vitamins and minerals, but that’s because all the other ingredients are devoid of those nutrients. Also, every time you eat a really high-carbohydrate meal, your glucose and insulin spike—and that can definitely negatively influence how your body handles things like fat or glucose throughout the day.
So while there are some cereals that can be part of a healthy diet, you have to do a lot of label-reading, and a lot hunting for specific cereals. And I’d also say that there are other breakfast foods that might be a bit more nutritious than a bowl of cereal—whole foods like eggs and vegetables, things like that.
Assistant Professor, Nutrition and Food/Dietetics, California State University, Sacramento
Obviously, most sugary cereals are lacking in fiber and protein. People who eat sugary cereals for breakfast can get a temporary spike in their blood glucose, but then they’re hungry again not much later—that said, a low-sugar, low-salt, high-fiber cereal, especially with added fruit, can be really good for you. Research has shown that people who eat cereal for breakfast tend to have a lower body mass index, and are at a lower risk for being overweight or obese. They have more energy throughout the day, and they’re less likely to consume higher calories later, because they’re fuller at the start of the day. They also usually have a higher daily milk intake, and are more likely to meet their recommended daily nutrient requirements, especially for fiber, B vitamins, folate, iron, and so on.
Adjunct Assistant Professor, Community Health Sciences, UCLA
Sugary cereals are kind of like glamorized candy, but the ones with all-natural ingredients—whole-grain, or shredded whole wheat, with minimally added sugar—actually do provide some health benefits. Eating whole grain breakfast cereal can have gastrointestinal benefits and can improve heart health (if it’s a soluble fiber), and can definitely be a good way to get a concentrated amount of grain in one serving.
That said, we’re most insulin-resistant in the morning, which means that if we eat a lot of carbohydrates our bodies won’t process them quite as well as they would at lunchtime. (Also, there have recently been some reports of cereals with the pesticide Roundup in them, so I would recommend looking for organic cereal.)
Associate Professor of Food Science and Nutrition and Director of the Dietetics and Food Administration Program at Fresno State University
The more processed a grain is, the higher the added sugar content. But if it’s a whole grain cereal, then it’s more of a complex carbohydrate, which provides better benefits. Plus it has a higher fiber content, and a lot of the vitamins and minerals that our bodies need in order to stay healthy.
I’m happy that food labels are now listing added sugar, because I think it will really help to dispel a lot of the misunderstandings and myths about sugar. Patients tell me all the time that they can’t eat this or that because it’s “too high in sugar,” but what the new label does is distinguish the added sugar—white table sugar, maple syrup, molasses—from the sugars that are found naturally in the product. If you chew a whole grain cereal long enough you’re going to get a sense of sweetness, because it’s going to break down to glucose ultimately anyway. Add some low-fat milk, some yogurt and some fresh fruit and you’ve got a really excellent healthy breakfast—or lunch, or dinner.
That said, I like to rotate carbohydrates and proteins with my patients. I might tell them to have breakfast cereal two or three days a week—cold or hot—and then on the other days have some egg whites, or whole eggs, or a cheese omelette, or a slice of whole grain bread with some nut butter.
Do you have a burning question for Giz Asks? Email us at email@example.com.